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South Hadley hockey seeks fifth straight sectional title

South Hadley's Tom Crotty, from left, Evan Sullivan and Joe Whalen celebrate Crotty's goal in the third period of Monday's Western Massachusetts Division 3A semifinal game at Olympia Rink.
 The Tigers play Agawam for the sectional title Thursday.

South Hadley's Tom Crotty, from left, Evan Sullivan and Joe Whalen celebrate Crotty's goal in the third period of Monday's Western Massachusetts Division 3A semifinal game at Olympia Rink. The Tigers play Agawam for the sectional title Thursday. Purchase photo reprints »

The 2012-13 South Hadley hockey team is eager to continue the program’s championship run over the last handful of seasons. But this particular Tigers squad also wants to forge a legacy of its own.

It can accomplish both this evening against Agawam in the Western Massachusetts Division 3A title game, which is set to face off at 5:30 p.m. A win would give the Holyoke/South Hadley program its fifth consecutive sectional title.

“I knew we could be a really good team this season, even though people had some doubts after all we lost” to graduation, junior Tom Crotty said.

Tonight marks the fourth straight year the Tigers and Brownies have met in the final. As the favorite the past three seasons, South Hadley has defeated its rival, including a 7-0 blowout last year.

This year, it’s Agawam (17-3-2) that enters the matchup as the top seed and a slight favorite over No. 2 South Hadley (16-3-3). The Brownies have not suffered a loss all season to a Division 3A opponent.

A pair of regular-season meetings resulted in a 2-0 Brownies win on Dec. 15 and an epic 4-4 tie on Jan. 23.

“We knew it would be a struggle to get back to this point, but we’ve banded together like brothers and have become a real team over the course of the season,” junior forward Joe Whalen said.

South Hadley has improved considerably since the first matchup and is a better team since the second.

“Our goal at the start of every season is just to make the tournament, then take our chances,” coach John Houle said. “Anything can happen in one game. But our guys are comfortable on this stage, all of them have some experience except for the freshmen.”

While Agawam won’t have to deal with graduated standout scorers Chris Menard, Doug Sattler and Spencer Nawrocki this time, South Hadley brings more balanced scoring into this contest. Eight players enter the final with double-digit point totals.

That style has carried over into the postseason with seven different goal-scorers, while eight Tigers have registered at least one point. Crotty and Beau Kass have each scored twice, while Jeff Beauregard (5) and Evan Sullivan (4) are the top assist men.

A pair of major factors for South Hadley are senior captain Beauregard and Crotty, who Houle has moved around the ice all year depending on the situation. No matter what position they’re playing, both are dangerous in all three zones.

“We’ve been spoiled the past couple years with three 100-point scorers, now we’re getting goals from all over the place,” Houle said. “All three lines are contributing heavily, and our defensemen contribute to the attack. Both us and Agawam bring three solid lines to the game.”

The top mission for the Tigers defense is to contain forward Corey Jenks, who leads the Brownies in goals (25) and points (38).

But Agawam has four other players — Cam Rivest (34), Billy Wysocki (27), Seamus Curran (26) and Alex Ablianitis (22) — with 20 or more points on the season and a whopping 13 skaters in double digits. Such depth will challenge a South Hadley defensive corps that runs just three blueliners.

Tigers goalie Devin Hoagland will make his 11th career playoff start. He sports a 9-1 record with four shutouts, including blanking the Brownies in the 2012 title game. In this year’s playoff run, the junior has stopped 43 of 45 shots.

“Because Devin’s so solid back there, we can take chances with the defense,” Houle said. “He gives us a ton of confidence, because he’s seen everything in the playoffs. His attitude is always the same, he’s so calm. The other guys out there see that and don’t get too anxious.”

Agawam was able to beat Hoagland six times in the two previous meetings this season, but needed 78 shots to do it.

Brownies goalkeeper Anthony Ascioti turned aside all 30 South Hadley shots in the win on Dec. 15. Like Hoagland, he earned a shutout in the quarterfinals against Turners Falls, but allowed four tallies to Wahconah in Monday’s semifinal.

“We’re going to have to skate hard and bring our physical game against Agawam,” Crotty said. “We need to shoot the puck whenever we get the chance, hopefully score enough. It should be a close one.”

This will be Ascioti’s first start in the sectional championship game, a lack of experience the Tigers hope to exploit.

“We may bring a psychological advantage into the game having beaten them the past three years, but Agawam has a great team,” Whalen said. “If we play our best, I think we’ll give ourselves a good chance to win.”

Michael Wilkinson can be reached at mwilkinson@gazettenet.com. Follow on Twitter @mjwilk1237.

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